McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” Nowadays

The term ‘medium’ refers to the communicative substrate that we choose to ‘fix’ a given message. McLuhan systematically asked himself what kind of media is favoured by the particular nature of a given media (Burke, 1966). Different examples include print, radio, film, television, the web and so on. The fascinating thing about media is how they invariably shape how a message is expressed and how the recipient perceives it.

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Marshall McLuhan’s main thesis, which he developed and maintained throughout his career, is that media has a strong and invisible effect on the world, society, and how we view society. His famous catchphrase “the Medium is the Message” refers to his theory that the media is important, and regardless of the content, the effect will still be the same. To understand McLuhan’s theories, we must forget the symbolic content of what is being said or the superficial interpretation of the actual picture.

Instead, we must look deeper into the whole infrastructure of the medium itself. “The juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” is how McLuhan described a medium’s content (McLuhan 1969). For example, a set of similar words could be spoken face-to-face, printed on a piece of paper, or presented to the people via television. Despite being the same message, three different understandings may be perceived. McLuhan holds that modern communication media, computers, television and radio included, would have far-reaching consequences aesthetically, sociologically, and philosophically.

Any age’s dominant media controls people and reconnects different relationships with the world based on the motor sensor apparatus used. Some of the human civilisation milestones were the phonetic alphabet, printing press and the telegraph (Stevenson, 2000). This is because they greatly changed how people thought about themselves and also how they experienced the rest of the world. According to McLuhan, there are three eras of social human history.

These are the Tribal Age, the Age of Print, and the Electronic Age. The Tribal Age is characterised by a world where all the senses were balanced and simultaneous, an oral culture structured by a dominant auditory sense of life (Davis 1977). The phonetic alphabet and the print media revolutionised everything. The trading of an ‘eye for an ear’ resulted in a shift towards sequential, lineal thought, reducing the use of all the senses to a merely visual code (McLuhan 16 45).

The man began developing his own individuality during the age of print. The print offered the masses some privacy. Society became fragmented as people’s thinking ways and how they looked at the world changed. McLuhan links the beginning of connected thinking and logic directly to the phonetic alphabet. The telegraph’s invention marked the beginning of the end of the reign of Age of Print. This was the birth of the Electronic Age.

The introduction of new electronic media, i.e. television sets (and film) and radio caused the printed word’s power to decrease significantly. McLuhan observed a reversal of the three-thousand-year bias towards a visual culture favouring the pre-alphabetic, and more sensor-balanced, oral tradition. This instant communication greatly reduces our individuality but also connects people. This is because everyone can now share the same experience of watching the same images on different television sets at the same time with the same effects. McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the Global Village’ where the electronic media re-tribalises human beings. (Rosen, 2007)

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McLuhan views most technology and media as mere extensions of man. This he refers to as self-amputation. This is where we create a medium or technology with the aim of replacing or modifying some other extension(s). For instance, the wheel can be considered as an extension of the foot; clothing can be viewed as the technical projection of skin (Stevenson, 2001). McLuhan holds that humankind’s obsession and fascination with these extensions have been there for a very long time, but more often than not, they choose to minimise or even totally ignore the amputations.

For example, people praise the benefits of owning a car and being able to move from one place to another at high speed, but they opt not to be reminded of the numerous negative consequences. These can include the loss of the strength of the muscles and poorer quality of air. Any new form of media or technology is bound to bring disruption and threaten the delicate balance of human senses (Durham, 2006). It is the response to the speed and power of the new extension that causes even more extensions. These, in turn, create new stresses within society.

McLuhan’s differentiation with regard to the media’s effects is ‘hot’ and ‘cool’. The defining characteristic is determined by the degree and type of tribal or social participation the medium demands on us. ‘Hot’ media are those that contain relatively complete sensory data. For this reason, the perceiver has a significantly less need to become involved by filling in the missing data. Meanwhile, ‘cool’ media requires the individual to participate by filling in the missing information. A lecture requires, for instance, less participation than a seminar does. Therefore the lecture is ‘hot’ while the seminar is ‘cool’ (McLuhan, 1969). By participation, McLuhan refers to the completeness (hot) or incompleteness (cool) of the stimuli and not the degree of interest or time spent on that particular communication medium.

Since it requires high audience participation, the internet would be a very cool medium. It has the possibility of warming up a little and maybe even become less interactive if some more television-like features were added to it (Settels, 1969). The film can be cooled down if it changes, but at the moment, it is still very hot. Television is relatively cool. However, it can be made cooler with widespread interactive television. Television watching has for long been regarded as a routine, unproblematic and passive process. The meanings of the television programs are seen as given and obvious; the viewer is seen as passively receptive and mindless (Smith, 2008).

Therefore, this means that all the audience has to do is to sit and stare without thinking, yet the audience is highly involved because of the low-resolution monitor, mosaic screen and therefore, greater mental participation. McLuhan regards television as a ‘cool’ medium. This is because it leaves spaces for the media to participate and shows lower levels of information technology.

Watching television and reading a book are very different from each other. When it comes to reading, we can choose to go to a different location and read the book at our own pace. The writings in the book will always be there. However, television is like an endless flow which we cannot capture; all we do is tune in and become part of the silent audience. McLuhan observed that the ability of television to attract people to certain events, bringing together different places and times simultaneously and at a high-speed meant the beginning of a new electronic age. Clearly, information transmission depends on the medium in use, and, in that narrow sense, the medium is the message (McLuhan 2001).

This could be the reason why so many people were drawn to the events immediately after the terrorist bombings of September 11th, 2001. Many described the event as ‘surreal’, and many more had trouble fully comprehending it. The mass media portrayed the attacks as a television event that was drama-filled with heroism and special effects (Hirsch, 2009).

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In a movie, the medium is hot, and everything is already arranged for us such that we can process the information already given more easily. Since we are accustomed to seeing that kind of violence in movies, it may be too traumatic to process in a different medium where more thought must be used. The attacks on the World Trade Centre are deeply stuck in the minds and senses of many people. Cool media, such as television, can explain the circumstances, allowing the audience to immerse themselves into the event.

Marshall McLuhan was among the first people to see media as a major force in the shaping of any society. He was most definitely the first to popularise the idea, and also one of the first to say that technology is an extension of the human body. With cameras and televisions improving the efficiency of our eyes, satellite dishes increasing the sensitivity of our ears, and computers and the internet boosting our brains’ power, the human body has become fully extended through communication technology.

His theories and ideas may not all be correct. However, many of his predictions (for example the concept of the Global Village) are so correct to the extent that his work is being re-investigated by communication scholars. The important thing is that the ideas of Marshall McLuhan can help us look at our society and everything that is happening today from a new angle. This can then help us work out newer and more efficient solutions to some of the oldest problems.

By saying that the medium is the message, McLuhan attempted to describe how the unique strengths, limitations and powers of a given medium will exert forces on the message that is being communicated that can approach the significance of the very content being communicated. In other times, it even eclipses it. This happens on both ends – media shape both the creation of communication and its interpretation.

In brief, the simplest and shortest explanation that one can come up with is that what we say tells a lot about us but how we say it defines who we are. Ever since humans started to use objects from his surroundings to help or aid in any task, it has been hard for him to detach himself of these “extensions”.

Communication is not only for conversing or for getting your ideas published, but it is so powerful that it is capable of shaping society. Once a message has been clearly stated, people can agree or disagree with the message. The content of the message is one thing, but the medium is no less important. The words “I now declare Martial Law” could arise panic in a state if read in the newspaper but greater panic could occur if it were heard through the television or seen through the television. The message is the same, but the impact is different.

When typhoon Ondoy struck and swept many homes, news about the tragedy spread fast. Turn on the radio, and you could hear topics about the typhoon and how to help victims. Turn on the TV, and you’ll see live aerial-view telecasts of the places hit by the typhoon. Turn on your desktop computer, log-into any social site and BAM! There’s at least a post about the typhoon; probably asking for help or volunteer work or just a vivid journal entry about a person’s experience during the flood.

There was a really interesting side story about McLuhan’s typo error when his book was published. At first, it was originally titled “The Medium is the Message”, but his publishers pressed the wrong key, and instead of an E on the first vowel in the word “Message”, they typed in an A. McLuhan didn’t call for a retraction of the books. Instead, he nodded his head, and thought that “Yes. The medium is the massage”.

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“All media are extensions of some human faculty, mental or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot. Book is an extension of the eye. Clothing is an extension of the skin. Electric circuitry is an extension of the central nervous system. The extension of any one cell’s displaces the other sensors and alters the way we think and the way we see the world and ourselves. When these changes are made, men change.”

MacRae (1993) expounds on some differences in the terms.

The medium is the message – the object used to give out the information represents the message itself.

The medium is the massage – objects that give out information should be enjoyable and relaxing for the people.

Automobile is an extension of the foot. Many uses and advantages but we forget to look into the disadvantages that we begin to fear amputation from it.

In the book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) Marshall, McLuhan said that the medium is the message. This famous phrase means that the content that a medium carries is not the totality of its message per se. This is particularly true today, where there are many media which can deliver information, each one vastly colouring how a message is perceived by its audience. However, the true value of a medium is how it can be used to enhance our collective experience as a society. Some media allow us to grow and flourish as a population.

There are some that do the exact opposite of that.

A medium that has disputably stunted human interaction in a social setting is television. McLuhan argued that the rise of the television turned the family circle into a semi-circle. What does this mean? Take the family circle before everyone had a television. With no mediator, two-way communications between humans were bountiful. After the television was introduced into homes, it greatly reduced the communication between humans. People adjusted to one way communication between a screen and themselves. Even if other family members were in the same room, communication between one member of the family and another who was in the same house was greatly reduced (Innis, 1980).

Of course, an argument for the other side can also be made, that television has amplified the way we connect as a society. Sporting events such as hockey, football and even the Olympics can bring people together, whether it be in a bar or with a couple of friends over at home.

In the past few years, a sport called UFC has risen to fame, offering large scale fighting between two contenders. Its creators opted for the program to only be available on a pay-per-view channel for the seemingly ridiculous price of $50 for a single 3-hour program. Hidden beneath the surface, however, is an ingenious marketing tactic. With such a high price, it forces people to gather together, pooling their money and watching the show together. Soon people begin to associate memories they received from the heightened social bonding that the program commands with the content of the program, but the real secret to its success is the medium in which it is presented.

With the age of the internet upon us, McLuhan’s family circle has taken yet another hit. Now everyone has a communication medium in front of them. Whether it is a cell phone, tablet, MP3 player or laptop, they are all connected to others who are also mediated by a screen. It can be debated that this breeds a more introverted population who has been primarily trained in social interactions electronically. As a result, they do not have the skills that are essential for effective face-to-face communication. This is an excellent example of McLuhan’s suggestion that the medium is more important than the message it carries. While the content of a conversation carried out between two individuals will be the same regardless of the way it is delivered, the medium dictates the social implications and side effects (Koch, 1996).

We also see evidence of this aphorism in the way we listen, experience and discover music. Compare a listening experience on vinyl to the same album on an iPod, and this becomes apparent. With vinyl, the listener can physically hold the music in their hands, admire the cover art and have a genuine sense of owning the product. Vinyl also forces the consumer to listen actively. They have to get up every 20 minutes to flip sides or change records. This causes the listeners to be more involved in the experience, as opposed to having it on in the background while they partake in another primary activity.

A stark contrast to the experience a record provides is the one that can be achieved using an MP3 player, such as an iPod. What portable music players lack in a physical sense, they make up inconvenience; often a sought after advantage in today’s fast-paced world. A consumer listening on an iPod often has access to thousands of songs, and the ability to purchase more anywhere he pleases. This consumer can shut out the world and replace it with any song desired, anywhere.

In fact, he could be listening to the exact same song that he listened to earlier that day on vinyl in his house, and be having a completely different experience right on his iPod. Even though the listener heard the exact same guitar chords, exact same lyrics and exact same drum hits, different media convey completely different messages, and in a subject as opinionated as music, it can be the main difference between loving and hating a particular musical piece or track.

Marshall McLuhan was a man certainly ahead of his time. This famous phrase is truer today than it ever has been. With the growth of the internet, dozens of available media have shot off and grown at an unprecedented rate, each adding their own piece of the experience to the content. In a world with so many choices in the way we perceive and experience each other, the medium truly is the message (Millon, 1999).

Instances When the Media Has Shaped the Communication

McLuhan’s Light Bulb Example

In his book, McLuhan gives the example of a light bulb as an elaboration of how the medium is the message. He illustrates that the light bulb is in itself, not a conventional medium the same way that a newspaper has articles in it. However, by virtue of it is a medium that provides a social effect. This is because the light bulb gives the people the ability to identify space at night that has been enveloped by darkness.

Pearl Harbor

Before the Japanese bombed the American naval fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1942, a great majority of the American population was against American intervention in the Second World War. Many Americans saw it as merely a ‘European conflict’. They wanted the Europeans to sort out their own mess. Americans were not willing to risk the lives of their countrymen in a war that was taking place thousands of miles away.

Then what President Roosevelt dubbed ‘a day, which will live in infamy’ happened. The Japanese, apparently without any provocation whatsoever, destroyed all but three ships in the fleet. Over 2000 Americans lost their lives in the space of just a few hours, and over 1000 people were injured.

It is true that Roosevelt’s famous ‘Day of Infamy Speech’ went a great way in changing many Americans’ perception of the war and agreeing to American participation in the war. However, the print media and the radio also played a major role in changing people’s perception. The day after the attack, American newspapers were filled with horrific images of dead soldiers and injured people bleeding profusely.

There were images of children crying over lost parents and nurses panicking in hospitals over the number of casualties. Radios echoed with graphic details of how the attack had been executed and how many people had died and were injured. These details greatly contributed to making the American population change its perception instantly from opposing American participation in the Second World War to fully supporting it.

America During the Second World War

During World War II, great deals of American resources were mobilised towards the war effort. Since most of the male population had been recruited in the army to fight in battlefields in Europe and the Pacific, women for a moment traded their kitchen aprons for factory jumpsuits. Women now worked in factories that produced tanks, guns, bullets, bombs and other such weapons that were necessary to tilt the war to the allies side. Some famous posters like those with an image of the so-called ‘Rosie the Riveter’ went a long way in inspiring women to work in factories. The main aim of the figure of Rosie the Riveter was to make the role of the woman working outside the home very attractive. And this it did very effectively as more women than ever witnessed in American history went to work in factories.

Similar posters were also used to recruit young American males into the military. During the same war period, more and more of these posters were used for propaganda purposes. For instance, some were used to encourage people to ‘shut up’. During this time, America was crawling with German and Japanese spies. Some were American citizens working for the axis powers, and it was almost impossible to spot them as spies. The American populace was encouraged not to say anything about the war if it would give the enemy a clue about American troop movements.

The Electronic Media and the Arab Spring

Recently, there has been a wave of uprisings and revolutions in the Arab world. This has occurred mainly in countries in North Africa, but a few have taken place in the Middle East. These revolutions were sparked by the self-immolation of Moroccan vegetable vendor Bouaziz. They have succeeded in supplanting from power long term leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

These revolutions owe a large part of their success to the electronic media. Social networking sites were very instrumental in the success of these revolutions. Facebook and Twitter are currently the most popular social networking and micro-blogging sites. These served to show a sense of unity among the protestors themselves and also between the protestors and the rest of the world. By logging on to Twitter, the protestors could see that they were not the only ones revolting in a certain country. They could see that there were numerous people in several other towns who were also carrying out protests.


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Davis, D. (1977) The Medium is the Message, NY, Newsweek Inc.

Durham, M. (2006) Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works, NY, John Wiley & Sons.

Hirsch, A. (2009) The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missionary Church, USA, Brazos Press.

Innis, H. (1980) Empire and Communications, USA, Rowman and Littlefield.

Koch, T. (1996) The Message is the Medium: Online All the Time For Everyone, USA, Praeger.

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Marshall. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, London, London Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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Stevenson, N. (2000) Understanding Media Cultures and Social Theory and Mass Communication, London, Sage.

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